It is a hot and humid day in the middle of December. I have just arrived in an obscure Cambodian village on the Thailand border.
Shops are closed and shutters are down. The town is probably enjoying an afternoon siesta. A definitive lull hangs over the place.
But my heart is beating fast! There is a lot going on in my mind. What if there is nothing new here? What if it did not turn out the way I expected? What if? What if?
Only a few months ago, Banteay Chhmar had stared at me right out of the 4th page of Google. Yes, that is where I was lurking around to find Cambodia’s most precious gem. Those pictures and the stories behind them had had me hooked.
A long lost temple dedicated to a grieving king’s son. An abundance of jungle foliage, tumbled-down rocks, and broken stone reliefs. Huge panels of the bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara and stories behind their mysterious disappearances. Intriguing tales of families born out of Pol Pot’s forced marriage regime.
Banteay Chhmar was just the historical treasure trove I had been seeking all my life!
So, on that hot and humid day, I get off the car, leave all my doubts behind, and enter the ruined sanctuary of Banteay Chhmar. The name literally translates into “A Citadel of Cats” in Khmer and is probably a lexical change over time. Though that foliage could easily hide numerous cats, big and small!
After an hour of exploring, I assure you there are none.
The only thing I need to be careful about is treading on precariously balanced stones. Everything seems to have fallen off. But my tour guide from the community tourism center ensures that I don’t break a bone.
The main temple complex or whatever remains of it is extraordinarily beautiful. A feeling of calm sweeps over me as soon as I enter the premises.
Broken down temples still hold the fort. Massive rocks lay scattered all over the place. Giant strangler trees make room for themselves. Creepers recklessly cover hidden shrines. The rustle of leaves beneath my feet is only punctuated by occasional tweeting of birds. And a vivid narration by the guide is music to my ears.
I see intricate bas reliefs in the courtyard depicting stories of life and war from the 12th century. Enigmatic faces like those in Bayon grace the temple towers. Lion-like beings from a different era stand guard at the abandoned libraries. I can almost see monks poring over books and devotees rushing towards shrines. I let my imagination run wild in the wilderness of Banteay Chhmar.
Until I come upon the Avalokiteshvara panels.
I have never seen anything so admirable and daunting at the same time. The stonework is faultless. And Avalokiteshvara stands there, tall and composed, with a hundred arms. In a manner that could inspire fear and respect. Yet, he has been broken down, looted, and pillaged for years.
Next, I venture out to see a couple of satellite temples. Some of them are just piles of stones hidden behind dense overgrowth. The ones that are accessible are not very different either. Even so, I see an occasional lamp flickering through the stones. I don’t know about God but faith is omnipresent in Banteay Chhmar.
My last stop of the day is at the main temple again. The Community Tourism Office has arranged for me to have dinner under the stars right next to those ancient stones. An elderly couple, supporting the cause, brings me delectable Khmer dishes. They are one among many who were forcibly married under the Pol Pot regime. Today, they are happy and content and contribute extensively to the growth of tourism in the village.
I go back to my homestay that is owned by a similar couple. Cheery and enthusiastic, they make sure all my needs are taken care of. We talk for a bit in sign language as they proudly point out to their kids.
I retire to bed to put down my day into words. But all I can think of is man’s infallible faith in God and human resilience. Two powerful qualities that give me hope. And Banteay Chhmar is filled with people who possess both. With the dreams of another resurrected Angkor, I drift into a peaceful sleep.
- Soumya Gayatri
- : Soumya is a full-time travel blogger from India who left her career in international marketing to travel the world and write about it. She is passionate about discovering the local culture and history of any place she visits. Ruined temples and old palaces are Soumya's personal favorites. And she loves good food. After every trip, you will find her recreating dishes from around the world in her Mumbai kitchen.
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- : This is the first time this story has been published.